Clients more concerned about information security than solicitors
Misuse of client money and self-dealing seen as most serious misconducts
Solicitors underestimate how highly clients value information security, with members of the public generally taking a more serious approach to confidentiality breaches than lawyers, an SRA report has suggested.
The SRA's Question of Trust campaign ran from September 2015 to January 2016 and canvassed 5,000 respondents. It included 2,000 participants in an online survey of 62 misconduct scenarios, half of whom were non-solicitors.
The results, published this morning, show that the differences in approach between solicitors and non-solicitors were statistically significant, even though for many questions, the survey noted, they were not particularly large.
However, information security issues, along with solicitor competence issues, were two areas where there was a clear difference between solicitor and non-solicitor, with the public seeing misconduct in this regard as more serious than solicitors did.
Examples included a solicitor's computer system being hacked, giving the hackers access to information about private transactions; making it possible for train passengers to read confidential client details on a solicitor's laptop; leaving client files open in the waiting area with no staff present; and leaving files in the boot of the car overnight while parked on the street.
'For each of these scenarios, non-solicitors thought the matter was more serious than solicitors did,' the SRA said. 'These differences are statistically significant and were some of the biggest differences in opinion across all the questions.'
Respondents were asked to give the scenarios a score from one to six, with one being 'no concern' and six being 'most serious'.
Just four scenarios had an average score of 'most serious'. One involved a solicitor dipping into client account to pay gambling debts, even though he intended to pay the money back '“ an issue recently considered by the SDT in the Sedgley case.
Others involved providing forged documents to allow a client to enter the UK, encouraging a client to alter their will to the solicitor's benefit, and using client money to solve the firm's cash-flow problem.
Among the 'very serious' situations were: borrowing money from client account to pay staff wages, a solicitor lying on his CV about qualifications and work experience, routinely overcharging clients and encouraging colleagues to do so, and pursuing a personal injury claim while knowing it is exaggerated.
At the lower end of the scale, a solicitor making inaccurate claims in a newspaper advert about his PI success rate and instances of racism merely scored as 'serious'.
Overall, misuse of client money, taking advantage of a fiduciary position, and misleading or false evidence were seen as the most serious examples of misconduct, especially where this involved intent and harm.
Where respondents felt more intent was shown and more harm caused, the behavior was perceived as more serious. If a scenario involved a junior solicitor, it tended to receive a lower score '“ although only a few scenarios involved junior solicitors.
Age groups or ethnicities had significantly different responses to some questions.
For example, younger people who took part in the online survey voted many of the scenarios as slightly less serious where there was pressure from managers to do well or the solicitor was depicted as 'just trying to be successful'.
Signaling a clear intention to make ethics a high priority in the forthcoming new handbook, SRA chief executive Paul Philip said the survey results showed the regulator was 'generally focusing on the issues that really matter to the public and the profession. We can now build on this as we develop our enforcement policy.'
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief at Solicitors Journal